Member Profile: Janet Sternburg

MEMBER PROFILE: Janet Sternburg

When did you become a member of PEN Center USA?
In 1988. Twenty-seven years ago!

Why did you become a member of PEN Center USA?
Initially because I was new to L.A. and wanted to meet other writers. That led to many years on the Board, as Vice President for Membership, and then chairing the Literary Awards. Let’s just say I got involved.

What is most exciting to you about PEN Center USA?
Its dynamism. Its openness. New programs, new reach, new growth.

What is your favorite memory/story of PEN Center USA or a PEN Center USA event?
It’s actually an image—sitting around a table with other writers. Multiply that image by many enjoyable occasions of working together and you get a composite memory, a fond one.

PEN Centers share a Freedom To Write mission, which means we believe that people should be able to read and write freely. What does Freedom To Write mean to you?
In addition to the aim of writers being able to write freely, Freedom to Write programming means that PEN Center USA, with its unique access and influence, can help relieve human suffering.

What do you wish other people knew about PEN Center USA?
I wish more people knew how terrific it is. Many of us in the western part of the country think it’s also useful to belong to PEN American Center. The writers in the East should know what they’re missing and join up in the other direction.

In light of the changing ways in which news is being shared, what role, if any, do you think writers and journalists play in disseminating information or encouraging action?
I’ve just finished reading Lyndsey Adderio’s memoir, It’s What I Do, about being a war photographer. She writes, “I discovered the privilege of seeing life in all its complexity.” I think that's what all writers do; that’s our job description. Writers may not encourage direct action by writing about the complexities of life, but we can open readers to deeper understandings, and that ultimately encourages change.

What are you reading now?
I’ll list the titles that are currently at the top of the list when I go to my Kindle library:

Mayhem in Margaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, and Sally Pane (I love whodunits); Nothing Special by Charlotte J. Beck (she’s my go-to person for wisdom that truly helps); and Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward (since I write the kind of books that are known as “memoir”—a limiting name, but that’s another story—I try to keep up with outstanding ones).

Tell us a story in one sentence.
Memoir: I hear me me me, followed by moi moi moi. See my response above. This is that other story.

Janet Sternburg is the author of White Matter: A Meditation on Family and Medicine, about family secrets and mental health (forthcoming September 15, Hawthorne Books). She is also the author of Phantom Limb as well as Optic Nerve: Photopoems, and author/editor of both volumes of The Writer On Her Work.

PHOTO CREDIT: James Jansen

Check out our past Member Profiles here.